by Gautam Pemmaraju
“Mudder ho gaya” (there’s been a murder), announces the young man who has hitched a ride with us at Langar Hauz, from the back seat of the car. “Four men chopped some guy down with swords. Just earlier. On the street. Everyone was watching”, he continues on in the typically idiosyncratic local Urdu dialect of the city. The comic cadences of this ‘contaminated’ tongue have for long elicited much laughter across the nation, particularly due to the antics of the late great Hindi film comic Mehmood. It is no laughing matter but it is certainly ironic and indeed, even emblematic, that as we pass the scene of the crime secured by ten policeman just moments later, a lone motorcyclist merrily rides on through this poor fortification and straight over the street chalk markings of where the dead man lay felled. The cops look momentarily bemused and a plain-clothed senior cop yells at his subordinates as they, literally and proverbially, eat dust kicked up by the passing bike. The young hitchhiker echoes my inner thoughts but a short few seconds later: “That’s how it is; that’s a true Hyderabadi”.
It is about 11 AM and we are driving through the narrow streets of the dense, labyrinthine, and at one time, profoundly troubled neighbourhood of Tappachabutra in Old Hyderabad. I learn later through TV news that an old rivalry led to that mornings’ street slaughter. The victim, a 40-year-old small businessman, was hacked to death in front of bystanders by four young men. It was an act of revenge allegedly; the dead man had done time for killing the gang leader’s father over fifteen years ago.
The archetypal Hyderabadi of urban lore heeds no one and instead takes great pride in his defiance of all authority. He is quick to temper and it is difficult to ascertain what he takes offense to, since his fickle mind is driven by an expansive culture of protocol and theatricality – oftentimes expressed through silly or sentimental shairi. He always carries a small knife, an ustra or a jambiya, is surrounded by lackeys who although seem to cater to his every whim, are in actuality, crafty parasites. If not sitting indolently at old Irani cafes or dimly lit grubby bars, spouting street wisdom, plotting either a retributive attack on his nemesis or a cunning scheme to win the affections of a girl who unambiguously finds him revolting, this broad caricature is mirrored in college canteen conversations, stand-up comedy acts and plays, and regional feature films. It is reflected in the rickshaw drivers, who perplexingly, seem always to rebuff passengers, looking away in utter disdain when asked if free.